Reel Rookie: A Triple Feature (Birdman, Whiplash, and Raging Bull)

*Spoiler Warning* I would suggest watching the movies before reading criticism if you get upset about spoilers.

Birdman and Whiplash

The 2014 Oscar for best picture was undoubtedly one of the tightest races in years. Having recently watched both Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash back-to-back, I feel comfortable stating that as a fact. While Whiplash won that year and set my expectations high, Birdman impressed me just as much. Iñárritu’s take on magical realism, his attempt at a single illusive long shot, etc. carried the same torch of high artistic pursuit that Whiplash had set ablaze with its emotive acting and nine minute drum solo. In all, I can neither overstate my praise for these two films nor what a unique and significant experience a back-to-back viewing was: like Riggan’s alternate universe and his contrasting reality, the two films meld together as one.

Besides recency effect, I believe a number of factors contributed to my proclivity for comparison and eye for continuity. For one, all of Birdman is pushed along by Antonio Sanchez’s fantastic, jazzy, drum score. When viewed after Whiplash, it’s almost as if Andrew’s final solo never ends. The setting, though, is what really ties the films together. Both take place in New York city and let that dictate much of dialogue, premise, and theme. Indeed, just as Andrew and Nicole reflect on the big apple, Sam and Mike discuss their love-hate relationship with the place while the city’s passersby shout up obscenities. Most significantly, New York is the place of great expectations. There is only one place for Riggan to be on the most prestigious stage in the world, New York. For Andrew, the city is certainly a border of musical fantasy. He seeks greatness in a college with no shortage of great musicians and in a city with no shortage of great colleges for music.

That brings us to discuss theme. While Riggan and Andrew perform on vastly different stages, each shares the ambition to make something of themselves beyond what their critics reduce them to. And both of them have plenty of critics: Fletcher and family, the New York Times and alternate ego. As both protagonists struggle to make it big in the world, we might say they are both dramas and coming-of-greatness stories. Yet both Chazelle and Iñárritu break up that dramatic theme with comedic elements. We would be missing something to not catch the witty and humorous dialogue and the comments of those passersby in Birdman. We might also be viewing Whiplash too seriously if we don’t find some humor in Fletcher’s creative insults. In that, it might even be said the two films share in a second genre, dark comedy.

By all of that, I cannot recommend watching these two films in a double-feature enough. In a strange twist, the two top contenders for the 2014 best picture each seem a retelling of or homage to the other.

“It was you Charley. It was you.”

Raging Bull and Birdman

Speaking of homage, I think we ought to address Birdman in relation to a much older flick, Martin Scorsese’s knockout tragedy Raging Bull. In the final scene of Birdman, Riggan removes his surgical tape and bandages to find his new nose. While a lot of movie buffs were quick to point out the beak-like appearance of the bandages and his new appendage (a symbol of Riggan’s crossover into super-hero territory among other interpretations), I think another angle might be considered. If you look through the mirror at the terrible, misshapen nose, you might see the prosthetic that Robert De Niro wore in his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Especially considering the over-the-shoulder mirror shot, I sense a tip of the hat from Iñárritu to Scorsese. Also keeping in mind that in the final scene pictured above, La Motta is a washed-up boxer about to perform Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront (not unlike Riggan’s life being a former blockbuster superhero turned Broadway director), I really sense a tip of the hat. What is certain though, is that film is a powerful thing. Here, if my theory holds any weight, we have a second degree of homage for De Niro’s performance is itself an ode to Marlon Brando’s.

Reel Rookie: Some Recent Films


I figured I would share some movies I just recently watched. You see, I haven’t felt motivated to watch something new in a couple months. But suddenly, my old passion for film stood over my shoulder and I decided not just to watch something new, but some older black and white films I had yet to see. That was especially strange to me because I have greatly admired some black and whites but would never choose them over something in color. I guess that’s worthy of documentation these days. Here they are.

The Killing by Stanley Kubrick – At only an hour and twenty minutes, you won’t endure pain for too long if you hate it but I doubt you will. For being near seventy years old, it feels as fast paced and modern as a Tarantino flick. And come on, it’s mobsters trying to rob the track. I was disappointed to think that only Scorsese and Coppola made mob flicks. But Kubrick too?

Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder – I thought Mulholland Drive was the only great film named after a street in LA. It was good to see that it’s not, especially considering my fascination with the city skyline I could see on a clear spring evening as a boy. As far as the film, it’s a movie lover’s movie, much like Mulholland Drive. You can get a taste for the Hollywood of DeMille’s era, if it ever ended, as the protagonist struggles through his relationship with a washed up silent film actress of the good ole’ days. But don’t worry. It’s not a silent film itself and should still be of interest to the person who doesn’t love movies (though I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t). For now, know that Sunset Boulevard makes enough noise. Its dark turns can keep your eyes glued to a black and white screen.

Citizen Kane by Orson Welles – Geez, I thought I was making a mistake putting this one off for so long. But its story is a tragedy of such proportion that I now wish I had never watched it. “Rosebud” is enough to bring a tear to anybody’s eye. No, seriously, this film in all its glamor and glory will put you down for at least the rest of the day. Once you pick yourself up though, you will recall it with only the utmost respect. Not even considering that it was released the same year Pearl Harbor was bombed, this is a true standout in all film and art. Follow Kane who leaves his family’s destitute life in Colorado to be a truly affluent man…only to slowly devolve into a shallow existence.

Reel Rookie: Art, Film, and “Barry Lyndon”

“The test of a work of art is, in the end our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.”

Stanley Kubrick

Criticizing, comparing, and understanding the infinitely complicated children of a genius is not an easy task, let alone the children of two geniuses. And so here I am on a Saturday, two weeks after a careful reading of William M. Thackeray’s novel, The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., unsure what to write. So here I am on a Saturday, after a dozen viewings of Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, one of my all-time favorites, unsure what to write. I am not qualified to tell you about the technical marvels of the film, nor am I an actor or photographer. And still, as a writer, it is not easy to tell you what the novel has in store. But Kubrick really throws me a bone with that quote, “Just do your best,” he seems to be saying. And so I will, even if it comes down to stating my simple affections.

I think it is best to start this week’s review where the film began, with the novel. A dusty old Oxford World Classic, one might see the iconic white stripe on the cover, remembering that some horribly boring poetic dialogue they read in high school belonged to the same banner. But it shouldn’t be judged as such for it’s actually terribly approachable and entertaining like much writing of the same time period.

And believe me, like anyone, I was once intimidated by the ridiculous language, silly costumes, hideous makeup, and stern rules of those centuries; I suppose, until I was forced to read of them. What I found then was that I had been missing out on a miracle: two hundred years later we’re hilariously similar. Thackeray’s characters use the term “I O U” and love gambling, drinking, drama, and sex just like the rest of us. Mozart was into flatulent humor. Perhaps the industrial centuries are where we should draw the line between the humanity of old and new because it’s just too easy to see this novel played out today. Many of my old assumptions turned out to be false too. There is hardly any language barrier and the costumes are no more ridiculous than what you would see on the red carpet.

So I have no choice after that rant I guess, at the risk of greatly underestimating a critically acclaimed novel, but to try and sum it up. While Thackeray, according to the back cover, viewed the “true art of fiction” as “[representing] a subject, however unpleasant, with accuracy and wit, and not [moralizing],” you’re very likely to read it as a Christian novel. Peasant Redmond Barry, the protagonist and narrator, is far removed from the Irish gentry but clings onto the idea of his high birth. Barry’s pride, ambition, greed, adultery, and boldness takes him through several intense pistol duals, the seven years war, and to the top of every European court. The same qualities also become his tragic downfall as he tries to obtain a title of nobility and struggles to gain the affections of his snobbish pain-in-the-ass stepson, Lord Bullingdon. So you see, it’s pretty likely to read as some sort of Christian admonition or a novel of the seven deadly sins, like Crime and Punishment.

But Thackeray really does leave you to judge the moral of the novel. Indeed, it cannot be ignored that the protagonist is far from a Christian and all events are retold through his justification and narration. What’s sure though, is that by the end I was affected by the humor and grief and was glad to have it in my library.

Now, I’m sure by this point you are ripe to know how my tirade ties into the movie. Well, I am reminded of something Seneca wrote to Lucilius,

What an indisputable mark it is of a great artist to have captured everything in a tiny compass

Seneca, Letter LIII to Lucilius

If the novel isn’t for you, the film surely is. Few people want to sit down and painstakingly read a novel they have no stake in (unless you’re a huge Kubrick and Barry Lyndon fan like me). As that fan, I will tell you that Kubrick makes the novel even more approachable and faithfully captures just about all of it in his compass. I mean every bit of dialogue is taken directly from the book and there seems to be hardly a piece of that novel missing. Yet, how much more the beautiful set pieces, camerawork, and acting represent than ten novels ever could. For all that, it feels like this movie is highly underrated and forgotten. Upon its release it won 4 Oscars, but today Kubrick is more well known as a skilled adapter for 2001, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange. He ought to be remembered by this.

I have heard three YouTube essayists call the film a collection of renaissance paintings. Let’s not forget that it is also an entire novel and, like those other adaptations, a testament to the flexibility of the movie as a medium. It is infinitely inspiring and all for less time and money than a paperback oxford world classic. If you want to see the full potential of film, I love this work of art and I hope you will too.

A Follow-Up to In Bruges: “On Raglan Road” by Patrick Kavanagh

“I will immortalize you in poetry, Hilda.”

Patrick Kavanagh

How could I review In Bruges without mention of the bewitching poem it features, “On Raglan Road” by Patrick Kavanagh?

I have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with poetry. In a sense, I find myself at opposition with the stringent rules and regulation that define so much of poetry. I think art should not be governed, but be governor. At the same time, perhaps I am just too lazy to learn and respect them. Undeniably though, the well structured “On Raglan Road” is one of the most beautiful tunes I’ve read and listened to and casts Ireland as an enchanted place of poetry. If you don’t like reading poetry, Luke Kelly’s cover from the film is most compelling and is embedded below.

Kavanagh and Kelly actually met at the Bailey Pub in Dublin. Kavanagh, with embarrassment, asked Kelly to cover his poem about a girl run away. Kelly did…and with much dignity.

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I passed along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay
Oh I loved too much and by such by such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint without stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had loved not as I should a creature made of clay
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Patrick Kavanagh
An interview with Kelly followed by “On Raglan Road”

As far as its usage in the film, I think it is quite self-evident. Kavanagh talks of his unrequited love, a sacrifice. Ken makes his own poetic sacrifice for Ray.

Reel Rookie: “In Bruges” by Martin McDonagh

Podcast with some friends.

**I love Quentin Tarantino. Believe me, my goal was not to criticize him.**

An Unholy Comparison

Last week, a colleague expressed his serious disdain of Quentin Tarantino. I had no idea people hated Tarantino. But, unknown to my friend, like so many supposed film “afficionados,” Tarantino was my world for a while. As the youngster with two film classes under my belt, I even committed myself to watching his entire anthology. But looking back through the hundred or so films that have graced me in the years since, Tarantino no longer sits atop the same pedestal on which I once placed him; or, at the very least, I no longer stand by to berate all who despise him.

I still adore his work and his idiosyncrasies of course, but a director has creeped into my life that I cannot help but adore just as well and maybe even offer up as an alternative to Tarantino. Indeed, some people need an alternative. They hate those Tarantino idiosyncrasies: his use of temporal disjunction, slow—sometimes snoring—pace (how many 2.5 – 3 hour movies can this guy put out?), and his insistence on hyper exaggerated violence. Martin McDonagh, thus far, has not demonstrated any of those most hated marks. Further, while I cannot put my finger on why save for the directors’ crossover in dark comedy, McDonagh seems to manifest some of the most agreeable aspects of a Tarantino flick.

Having seen McDonagh’s dark comedy In Bruges the most, I will here try and convince you it is a good starting point if Tarantino threatens you.

Plot and Analysis

Compared to something like Pulp Fiction, the plot is simple and almost completely linear: aging mafia hitman Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and his childish apprentice Ray (hilarious Colin Farrell), are sent to the “fairytale” town Bruges, Belgium after a job in London goes awry. Specifically, after Ray kills a young boy by mistake.

While Ken wants to ride the tourist pony show seeing the inside of every castle and waiting in queue for all the churches like any senior citizen, Ray “throws a fucking moody,” as they say on the other side of the pond, through all of it. For Dublin-born Ray, his opinion of the town and sightseeing is obvious even before he makes it clear,

“If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t!”

Still worse for Ken’s holiday, he is made to play the role of a father when Ray’s guilt-ridden conscience turns suicidal.

Through all their hilarious back and forth about whether to get pissed at the pub or go see another church, a dark turn blindsides the viewer. The boss orders Ken to kill Ray for the collateral damage. Softened since his younger days and thinking himself a father-figure to Ray, a moral dilemma follows for Ken: to carry on with the inflexible and vengeful rule that dictates mafia life or believe in life and change.  

Hilarity ensues but therein is the philosophy as well. The boss’s call is perhaps the epicenter of the serious questions posed by McDonagh: does it make any sense for ever-changing man to adopt a rigid morality? Does it make any sense for imperfect man to be so hell-bent on justice and vindication? These clear uncertainties are especially refreshing coming from a Tarantino film which does not simply pose a question through dialogue or action, but itself embodies postmodernist philosophies.  

In many other ways, McDonagh is welcome coming down from a Tarantino high. His use of violence, for instance, is more modest and does not flirt with suspension of disbelief. Naturally, there are a few fist fights and the film culminates in a spectacular foot chase through Bruges’ Christmastime streets. Still, rest assured. No one gets killed with a flamethrower or a can of dog food like in Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Further, the lack of the problematic Hollywood badass (think Cliff Booth from that movie or Lt Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds) also makes the film less immersion breaking. Compared to the unbelievable cool factor of Tarantino’s roles, Ray and Ken are outrageously human. They are not mere hitmen. They eat light yogurt, might wear the same shirt for three days straight, and might not know what an alcove is. I cannot remember the last time I could recall such everyday human details about a character.   

So, you see, In Bruges avoids the most polarizing parts of Tarantino and still does action and dark comedy in style. Moreover, McDonagh deals in some of the serious philosophical questions of generations. For that, I can give In Bruges my highly sought-after Reel Rookie seal of approval and recommend it to you. For my part and for the sake of comedy, I hope McDonagh’s string of successes made up of In Bruges, Three Billboards, and Seven Psychopaths is never ending.

This first review…dedicated to my film professors